Delhi Odd-Even: Tughlaq’s sledgehammer backfires

In the West, not possessing a TV set at home is often regarded as a statement of social snobbery. Occasionally, and particularly in the bigger cities, this lifestyle statement extends to not possessing a car. When a car is needed, middle class individuals often go to the nearest Hertz or Avis and simply hire one.

In Delhi, I can scarcely think of any middle class family in India that does not possess a car or, indeed, many cars. This is particularly true of the post-1991 India when the advent of multiple brands of vehicles and the easy availability of consumer credit resulted in a mushrooming of cars. Even for the lowest rung of the middle classes, a two-wheeler or a second-hand vehicle has become obligatory, resulting in huge traffic congestion on roads that haven’t witnessed widening for decades. Even in Delhi where new roads and flyovers have been built to keep pace with urban expansion, there are more vehicles than the roads can cope.

The much-overdue construction and expansion of urban rapid transport systems — notably the metro rail — did definitely make life easier for the poor to a very large extent. However, the sheer pressure of numbers and consequent slowness of speed never made public transport a viable option for those who could afford alternatives. A personal vehicle has become a necessity for those who aim to arrive at their place of work without experiencing exhaustion. Unlike, say, London, where public transport is the preferred means of daily commuting, the Indian experience has relegated public transport to those who have no other meaningful alternative. Public transport, consequently, has become the option for the masses; the successful and the aspirational prefer their own private transport.

That this is an unviable situation is obvious. But despite all attempts by governments, public transport has failed to cope with the challenges. Apart from demand far outstripping supply, there are logistical difficulties too. The most significant centre on last mile connectivity. There are just not enough three-wheeler cabs or motorised/cycle rickshaws to connect the bus stop or metro station to the place of work or home. Moreover, walking the final kilometre or more is made difficult by a combination of inhospitable pavements and the weather — too hot or too wet. In recent months, there have been attempts to provide cycles on hire for short distances but the initiatives are still patchy. There is nothing remotely resembling the cycle depots that dot Central London.

Maybe it was a genuine desire to be ‘modern’ and innovative or even a concern over Delhi’s unacceptable levels of pollution that propelled the Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi to experiment with the odd-even scheme. I for one don’t question the lofty motives that lay behind this audacious experiment, although it is difficult to also discount the perverse pleasures of unleashing a form of class action that underpinned the motives of over-zealous AAP leaders.

Whatever the reality, the first 15-day experiment that happened when schools were on holiday earlier this year was a relative success. Regardless of its impact on pollution levels, those 15-days witnessed a significant easing of road congestion. Moreover, the easy availability of App-based taxis helped ease middle class inconvenience, even if the cost of a taxi every alternate working day did burn a hole in people’s pockets.

The second (now ongoing) experiment appears to be markedly less successful. There is evidence of continuing congestion in some areas — pinned on ‘local difficulties’— and significant middle class inconvenience connected to the collection of children from schools. The scale of difficulties has also mounted with the lower number of App-based taxis operating in the city owing to a dispute over ‘surge pricing.’ Unlike the first odd-even experiment, the AAP government has come in for a great deal of flak and a form of public resentment is patently visible.

Quite predictably, the hyperbolic AAP has blamed the difficulties on a monumental ‘conspiracy’ hatched by its political opponents. Although this seems far-fetched, the Arvind Kejriwal government has reacted to the difficulties with a characteristic old-fashioned socialist response.

The restriction on surge pricing by some App-based taxi services that has led to many taxis going off the road is quite typical. Charging a premium when demand exceeds supply is a normal feature of economics and can be deemed legitimate unless there is evidence of market manipulation. In Delhi, the three-wheelers routinely charge above the legitimate meter rate, and those desperate to get around pay up — sometimes grudgingly. With greater competition among taxi services, the surge rate had actually declined, except in maximum peak hours. But, at the same time, the premium is regulated by the quantum of competition: the more the competition the less the premium.

In Delhi, by imposing the odd-even system without corresponding improvements in the entire range of public transport, the Kejriwal government created an unnatural scarcity. When premiums consequently rose, he cracked down on the App-based taxis (at the behest of the three-wheeler lobby, it is reported). This, ironically, added to the shortage of public transport and inconvenienced people further. In short, Kejriwal removed all incentives for people to avoid private transport — a typical consequence of trying to manage markets with an administrative sledgehammer.

When he devised the odd-even scheme, perhaps on the advice of some of his New Age followers, Kejriwal’s intentions were honourable. In the face of difficulties confronted during a more ‘normal’ period, his response has been cussed. He has tried to use administrative diktat to control the market. No wonder he is being described as a Tughlaq.

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